Octavia E. Butler’s 1976 novel Patternmaster was the first in her Patternist series to be published; this is not surprising, as this book was her debut novel. In terms of internal chronology, it is the final book in the series, the endpoint to which all the other books—Wild Seed, Mind of My Mind, Clay’s Ark, and Survivor—led.
(I will probably review all of Butler’s books eventually. Perhaps even including Survivor.)
Patternmaster is a gloomy destination for a future history.
Centuries into the future, Earth has long since abandoned Enlightenment ideals of equality and liberty. Instead, political power is based on psychic power: those without psionic abilities are property. Above them, the Patternists, people with psionic powers. Above them, the Patternmaster, lord of psychic Pattern, linker of espers. Below the Patternmaster, position is determined by raw power, ingenuity, and luck. Competition is cruel and often lethal: Patternmaster Rayal killed all but one of his siblings.
This system has one fatal weakness: the people who might make the best Patternmasters are also the ones most likely to be murdered by the current incumbent. Nothing ensures that a suitable candidate will be available when the current Patternmaster dies.
Coransee, son of Rayal, thinks he has a solution. Confident that he will be the next Patternmaster, he decides to groom his brother Teray as his chosen heir. Of course, this requires Coransee to trust Teray, with whom he has had very little contact. Coransee comes up with a proposition for Teray, one that combines a carrot (immediate power and position) and a stick (psychic tampering that will prevent Teray from plotting against Coransee). Oh, and Coransee will add Teray’s wife Iray to his own harem.
It turns out that Teray will sacrifice many things important to him, including Iray, but not the sanctity of his own mind. The logical response would be to kill Teray on the spot, but even powerful psychics fall victim to the Sunk Cost Fallacy: Coransee allows his brother to live for the moment, in the hopes of convincing him later.
A decision that only gives Teray time to find an ally in powerful healer Amber, and to plot his escape.
Butler got more skillful and insightful as she matured. I don’t think it would be too controversial to say this is the second worst novel she ever wrote (Survivor being much worse). Still, the second-worst Butler is still better than many other books.
The book is told from Teray’s perspective, so Coransee comes off as something of a brutal thug. He’s also more appealing to women than is Teray, which really pisses off Teray. Even Iray decides pretty quickly that she prefers Coransee to Teray.
While Teray’s assessment of his brother as brutal thug is spot on, what it misses is that Teray is not really any better; he is just weaker and so not in a position to bully those around him. Teray’s devotion to freedom is focused entirely on protecting his own freedom. Other people’s liberty is of little interest to Teray, save when spurred on by Amber. Teray is willing to kill when necessary. Indeed, the act that marks Teray’s ascension to power is a mass murder, a limited genocide inflicted on the Clayarks, the mutated humans with whom Patternists and Mutes are eternally at war.
This imagined world of brutal feudalism, with its lip service to eugenics, slavery, and erasure of women’s rights, was typical of the worlds imagined by the mainstream SF of the time. The endless race war between humans and Clayarks also seems typical. Patternmaster could have been serialized in Analog if Butler had dialled back the sex a bit1.
(Butler meant, I think, to show what happened if the worse impulses of man were taken to their logical extreme. Other 1970s novels (I’m thinking of you, Gor) exalted them.)
The Orwellian perspective that power is often not a means but an end2 also characterizes Butler’s work as a whole; one can see the path that leads from Wild Seed’s Doro to the Patternmasters. What seems to be lacking in this book is overt empathy with the weak — due, perhaps to Butler having picked the wrong character as protagonist.
To my mind, Amber, the powerful healer who becomes Teray’s strongest ally, should have been the lead, not an important secondary figure. Yes, we learn a lot about her troubled past and how she managed to overcome institutionalized patriarchy and homophobia3 to carve out a little piece of sovereignty for herself. More would have been much better and if that came at the cost of fewer words devoted to Teray’s whining, I would be OK with that.
As far as I recall, this is the only Butler novel with a solo male lead; her other books are told from the point of view of women or men and women. I wonder if the issue might not have been that at this stage of her career, Butler was still so steeped in the sexism of the 1970s that it didn’t occur to her Amber could be the protagonist. Sadly, Butler is no longer available to ask.
1: I have seen this described as Butler’s Darkover but I can see parallels to Dune as well. A major parallel would be the loss of entire technologies, However, the worlds of Dune deliberately abandoned certain technologies, believing that they weakened mind and spirit, whereas the Patternists lost tech because they privileged psychic power over mundane skills like engineering.
2: For all Coransee’s multitudinous sins, he at least spends the book trying to ensure the succession.
3: Judging by the scene where Amber has to explain to a perplexed Teray that sometimes she is attracted to men and sometimes to women, there’s a significant level of bi-erasure as well. But it could also be that Teray is kind of dim.